Environmental Science Division (EVS)a Division of Argonne National Laboratory

The push for solar: Argonne supports solar energy planning in Southwest

August 14, 2012

The U.S. Departments of the Interior (DOI) and Energy (DOE) have reached a milestone in their efforts to accelerate solar energy development on public lands in Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and Utah – a corner of the country where the sun shines strong and hard

With support from Argonne National Laboratory's Environmental Science Division (EVS), the federal agencies have issued the Final Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement for Solar Energy Development in Six Southwestern States (Solar PEIS), a report that outlines specific locations, permitting processes, incentives, mitigation strategies and adaptive management plans for solar energy development.

Part of President Obama's all-of-the-above energy strategy, the Solar PEIS represents a major step forward in diversifying the country's energy portfolio. The document provides a roadmap for informed solar energy development that avoids, minimizes and mitigates biological, ecological, cultural, scenic and socioeconomic impacts.

Argonne scientists helped prepare the report by assessing the potential impacts of solar development on resources, including soil, water, air, protected and endangered wildlife, cultural resources and visual resources.

Schematic visualization of how hypothetical solar facilities would appear to surrounding regions.
To evaluate the visual impacts of solar development, Argonne researchers provided schematic visualizations of how hypothetical solar facilities would appear to surrounding regions. They used Google Earth to create this visualization of the Gillespie Solar Energy Zone in Arizona (shown in orange tint), with a power tower wireframe model, as seen from Signal Mountain, AZ. [Source: Argonne National Laboratory]

Argonne's work helped DOE and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) identify BLM-administered lands that are optimal for solar energy development. Argonne research also helped the agencies determine mitigation strategies and develop new policies and programs to guide future development.

“We are pleased to support the agencies' efforts to identify areas that are most suitable to future solar energy development in the southwestern U.S.,” said John Krummel, Director of Argonne's Environmental Science Division. “Developing a blueprint for future solar energy development will help facilitate faster and more efficient utility-scale solar development on America's public lands.”

The Solar PEIS identifies and evaluates 17 proposed Solar Energy Zones (SEZs), comprising 285,000 acres of public land, as priority areas for solar energy projects. The document also identifies another 19 million acres as “variance areas” that could accommodate solar energy projects on the condition that developers conduct additional environmental impact studies. To protect natural and cultural assets, the Solar PEIS identifies 78 million acres of land where solar energy development would be prohibited. Solar energy projects on the SEZs and variance areas are expected to yield 23,700 megawatts of renewable energy, which can power 7 million American homes.

The release of the Final Solar PEIS builds on previous successes in fostering renewable energy development on public lands. When President Barack Obama took office in 2009, there were no solar projects permitted on public lands. Since then, DOI has approved 17 utility-scale solar energy projects that will create more than 10,600 jobs and produce nearly 5,900 megawatts of energy – enough to power approximately 1.8 million American homes.

Renewable energy from sources like wind and solar have doubled under the Obama administration. The Solar PEIS supports U.S. efforts to create renewable energy projects that are “smart from the start,” such as DOI's offshore wind program. This includes incorporating the input of diverse stakeholders, using existing grid infrastructure and adopting technologies that support American industries.

Argonne will continue to help the BLM's Solar Energy Program develop mitigation tactics and make siting and design decisions based on sound science. Scientists in EVS are already supporting BLM on a mitigation pilot study for the Dry Lake Solar Energy Zone.

The Final Solar PEIS is available for viewing online.

The Federal Register Notice of Availability for the Final PEIS, issued on July 27, will begin a 30-day protest period, after which DOI may consider adopting the document through a Record of Decision.

Stream channel sensitivity to surface disturbances near Brenda Solar Energy Zone, AZ
Argonne scientists analyzed how proposed solar development would affect waterways. This figure, put together by Argonne researchers, shows stream channel sensitivity to surface disturbances near the Brenda Solar Energy Zone in Arizona. [Source: Argonne National Laboratory]
portrait of Heidi Hartmann